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Evolution-exploration saga on short list for National Book Award

October 20, 2009 By David Tenenbaum

“Remarkable Creatures,” by University of Wisconsin–Madison professor of genetics Sean Carroll, has been named a finalist in the nonfiction category of the National Book Award.

The book recounts the most dramatic expeditions and important discoveries in two centuries of natural history — from the epic journeys of pioneering naturalists to modern breakthroughs — and how they inspired and enlarged the science of evolution.

Carroll’s latest book describes the adventures of well-known scientists like Charles Darwin, but Carroll says he’s “particularly drawn” to scientists without marquee names.

Alfred Wallace, for example, collected specimens in the South Seas for eight years, selling samples to museums to finance his travels. Wallace’s 1858 letter to Darwin outlined a theory of evolution through natural selection and sparked Darwin to finish “On the Origin of Species,” the seminal book of evolution. Because Wallace and Darwin published similar theories on the same day, technically they are co-discoverers of evolution, which most biologists consider the organizing principle of life.

Why dwell on people like Wallace and Mary Leakey, who, with her husband Louis, found some of the most important pre-human fossils? “I root for the underdog, and each of these individuals was very unlikely to rise to greatness,” says Carroll. “None of them finished a formal education, but when each got the opportunity to pursue their passion, they were Herculean collectors who made great discoveries. Their determination in the face of all sorts of obstacles, or outright tragedy, is very moving.”

Carroll will give a public lecture honoring the 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of Species” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at the Ebling Auditorium at the Microbial Sciences Building, 1550 Linden Drive. The awards, issued by the National Book Foundation, are now in their 60th year.